Miriam Cahn

Galerie Stampa

For over a decade, Miriam Cahn’s work has contributed to the creation of a critical and imaginary/expressive space for approaching the unstable and shifting parameters of female subjectivity. A vocabulary of metaphors and symbols was developed as a kind of dictionary to a reality which is both experienced and understood as sexually coded. Cahn’s recent work, shown under the title Verwandtschaften (Family relationships; all works 1990) continues her investigations into women’s relation to language.

As one enters the gallery, two series of very different images face each other on opposite walls of the first room. Atombomben (Atom bombs) are visually seductive color abstractions on paper, which, in conjunction with the title read as perversely beautiful mushroom clouds. Verarbeitung (Processing) consists of small oil-on-canvas paintings of aerial views of industrial plants painted from photographs: the Savannah River plant, Ciba-Geigy, Sandoz, etc. The same primary colors are used in both series and have particular symbolic meanings: yellow: toxic, deathly, destructive; red: preserving; blue: plants, shadows; mixtures:streets, parking spaces, paths, unspecified territory. A close connection is suggested between the symbolic and expressive on the one hand, and a modern technological regime of death and destruction on the other. The sexual component of modern technologies of destruction was perhaps first made explicit in the “War Series” by Nancy Spero in the late ’60s. Cahn’s work suggests the extent to which masculinity as a techno-symbolic apparatus is internalized in terms of threat, fear, limit, and also a certain kind of seduction thematized in earlier work with reference to pornography. It is the pornographic which structures not only conventional modes of artistic representation, but the imaginary articulated within them.

Other work in the exhibition approaches this problem from a different angle. Large charcoal drawings and series of smaller formats develop the strategies: “Lesen in Staub” (Reading in dust) and “Mit geschlossenen Augen” (With closed eyes). While superficially recalling Surrealist techniques of automatism and the use of chance, conceptually, Cahn’s work follows a different path. Tracing recurring motifs—trees, animals, heads, and figures—in charcoal dust, drawing with closed eyes and working in intervals linked to the cycles of the female body, her working procedures imply not so much a celebration of the unconscious or intuition, as an attempt to develop a language appropriate to the specificity of a female libidinal economy. Historically, therefore, Cahn’s work has to be understood in the context of a particular feminist attitude to artistic practice, écriture feminine, a term primarily used to designate a body of literary work in France in the 1970s. Yet, just as the writing gathered under this category betrays the artificial homogeneity imposed by the label, it would be misleading to assume that there is a fixed set of criteria and strategies informing its contemporary visual counterparts. Rather than simply asserting a feminine language or symbolism, Cahn’s work mimics both the marginal positions to which women’s speech has been restricted historically—the sorceress reading matter as signs, the hysteric’s discourse of the body, the identification of woman with nature, children, animals—and equally, expression as epitomizing genius and meaning in art. The drama of huge uprooted trees, floating in space, is presented next to small drawings of what looks like a cactus precariously balanced on a hilltop, while elsewhere “reading in dust” has produced sequences of humorously primordial animals that function visually as black halos in their emergence from equally impenetrable and nocturnal surroundings. The lightheartedness and humor of these images forms an integral part of Cahn’s work, which combines a critique of phallocentrism with the search for artistic processes and vocabularies that may be more adequate to representing and validating knowledge, pleasure, and experience as sexually specific.

Desa Phillipi